Saturday, July 14, 2012

Political Animals: Funny And Frightening

Sigourney Weaver's TV miniseries debut is reason enough to watch the first episode of Political Animals, a smart, sassy take on U.S. politics that is both frightening and funny.
Weaver effortlessly channels Hillary Clinton as she plays Elaine Barrish Hammond, a former First Lady who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination only to wind up as a commanding Secretary of State.
And make no mistake about it Weaver at 63 remains a tigress of an actress.
She dominates every frame she's in as the ranting, relentlessly driven secretary able to vanquish practically everyone who stands before her.
Let's see there's her former husband, the ex-Prez Bud Hammond, a boozy, chattering fool played to near perfection by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds.
And certainly the lines he gets are often cartoonish: "I'm the most popular Democrat since Kennedy had his brains spattered across the Dallas concrete."
Now I ask you would anybody in or near power sputter such a sitcomy line?
Then there's the sour faced younger president of Italian descent who eventually won the nomination and the race, Paul Garcetti, played with lethal antagonistic charm by Adrian Pasdar as he hatches plots to bring down his still formidable rival.
Turns out Elaine's biggest problem at the moment is the Washington columnist Susan Berg who continually excoriates her and her family in blistering columns.
Susan likes to pretend she runs with the journalistic big boys but she's not above digging up even more dirt on Elaine's family and threatening to run with it unless she gets that all important exclusive interview for a proposed upcoming profile.
Greg Berlanti (Everwood, Brothers And Sisters) created it and he directed the first episode which is fast paced and filled with priceless lines.
Who knew political types could be so witty? The politicians I've known were all dull and steady and scarcely deserving of such lines as:
"I don't eat shit. I send it."
Or: "All people ever talk about is your ambition."
Or: "Never call a bitch a bitch."
What Elaine needs are stronger opponents. Berg actually seems nice most of the time --she's living with her editor (Dan Futterman) and beginning to wonder if he is faithful.
Susan's two grown sons are both weaklings.  There's bitter younger son T.J. (Sebastian Stan) who has drug issues unrelated to his gayness. Older son Douglas (James Wolk), who functions as her chief of staff,  thinks he's about to escape all this with marriage to a beautiful Japanese American girl Anne Ogami (Brittany Ishibashi) who tiptoes out of the engagement lunch to retch in the bathroom (she has bulimia).
And what to make of Elaine's mother, played with relish by a white haired Ellen Burstyn that owes much to Barbara Bush.
For a series about politics there's very little sense of politics going on save for an Iranian hostage situation which Elaine must solve without the President's help.
What we wind up with is a small helping of The West Wing and a larger dose of Dallas.
This becomes mostly the frolic of Bud and Elaine --particularly when they hitch up at a seedy motel for a little love making while security agents keep watch.
Weaver is such a powerhouse she lets one revel in the cliches. My favorite scene finds Elaine at midnight commiserating with the female elephants at the Washington zoo. She really relates to their sense of empowerment in a matriarchal society.
Weaver single handedly turns Political Animals into juicy, bawdy and totally compelling soap opera.
And by the way when asked why Canadian TC can't cover Canadian politics with such verve here's my reply:
CBC did with the miniseries H20 which ran for several seasons but a third season was cancelled by CBC because of money problems. Go figure.
MY RATING: ***1/2.

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